Questions My Mother Asks Me – Part Two

My mother called me the other day and asked, “Why do I see sparks come out when I plug in or unplug my vacuum cleaner?”

This is a good question. It illustrates an important principle about electricity. Electricity is always trying to complete the circuit (or go to “ground”). The easiest way for this to occur is by returning back to the panel. Electricity is like water, it will always take the easiest route to get where it wants to go.

Imagine that your electrical panel is a water pump: when you turn on your plumbing, water flows through the pipes. You can think of electricity the same way; the wires are the pipes flowing out from your electrical panel and then returning back to the panel. Each receptacle has two “pipes”. One pipe is the inflow coming from the panel; the other is the return flow to the panel.

Electricity that leaves the panel wants nothing more than to return. When you plug your vacuum cleaner into the receptacle with it turned off, nothing happens. That is because you are continuing the pipes (wires) from the receptacle to inside the vacuum cleaner where the switch is acting like a dam and not letting the water (electricity) flow.

Now what happens if the switch is on when you plug in the vacuum cleaner? The switch is no longer acting like a dam and water (electricity) is free to flow. As you begin to insert the plug into the receptacle water begins to flow immediately because it is able to return, it is being pumped with enough force to be able to jump that small space into the plug. When electricity does this, it creates a spark.

The more force being used to pump the water, the farther it can jump. With electricity, voltage is a measure of speed; the higher the voltage the more force is being used to pump the electricity and the farther it will jump, creating a larger arc or spark.

So, the moral of the story is that you should never plug or unplug any appliance into a receptacle when it is on. If you do, you will probably see a little spark. Don’t panic and call your son or daughter. Just remember to make sure that the next time it is turned off.

However, if anytime you do see sparking coming from your receptacle when you plug something in and you made sure it was turned off first, give Simple Electric a call. In this case, there is definitely something wrong with the receptacle.

Stay tuned for more posts in our “Questions My Mother Asks Me” series. And don’t be afraid to forward some of the questions your mother asks you.

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